[29 July 2002]

By R. Tim Brown

Nick Fury and Marvel Versus the Establishment

“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” so the saying goes. There may be no older soldier than Marvel Comics Nick Fury. However, in an effort to revitalize the character, Marvel has published Fury, a mini series featuring a much different Nick Fury than readers are used to seeing. Another old “soldier” that is in threat of fading away is Marvel Comics. Although at one time, Marvel was considered by many to be the most innovative and original comic publisher, recent years had brought on criticism of lame stories, rehashed plots, and outdated business practices. By examining Fury, we can see how Marvel has revitalized a character as well as a company.

Originating in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in 1963, Fury broke into the Marvel Comics scene as the commander of an elite World War II fighting squad. Despite strong anti-war sentiments in the 60’s, this war comic was extremely popular with audiences. Marvel, wanting to profit form Fury’s popularity, decided to reinvent the character so that he could appear in Marvel’s mainstream titles. Building off the popularity of the spy genre, in which James Bond and the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. played a major role, Marvel created Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. These stories first appeared in Strange Tales, but later received their own title. S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division) is Marvel’s ultra secretive spy agency, of which Nick was an agent and eventually leader. Immensely popular at its inauguration, the title fizzled after only a few years, and Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. were regulated to playing a supporting role to the rest of the Marvel Universe during the 70’s and most of the 80’s. Nick Fury regained popularity for a short period from 1989-1993 with Nick Fury vs. SHIELD and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD (volume 2). It seemed that after this latest revival that the old soldier Fury would fade away and be relegated to take a back seat role.

However, Marvel decided to bring back the character for another go at it, but this time, Marvel decided to explore the dark side of Nick by hiring the gritty Garth Ennis to write the story. Marvel has finally gotten a clue on how to revitalize their struggling industry—by writing stories that will cater to the majority of their audience, namely adults. Fury is just one example of how the adult audience has become more important to Marvel. Fury is published under the company’s new "MAX Comics" line, which is intended for mature audiences. While Fury comics of the past displayed graphic language, violence, and to some extent, sex, those issues came nowhere close to the "explicit content" contained in Fury. The first issue alone contains mangled bodies, the "F" word, and a half dozen naked, Asian prostitutes.

The series opens with Nick feeling obsolete in the "corporate" structure of the espionage world. He sums up his feelings while talking to an old enemy, Rudi Gagarin, "What happened to this country? When did the assholes start running things? How did they get away with the pissant little rules they make us live by? Why do they use ten words to hint at what just one would say? I feel like I blinked and someone turned the place into the United States of Pussies." Rudi’s response is that he and Nick should start their own war by using some small country as their pawn. Of course, Nick turns him down only to find out later that Rudi has manipulated General Makawao to overthrow the government of Napoleon Island, which lies halfway between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii. Rudi will only cause the U.S. trouble by controlling such a strategic area, so Nick will have to go after him while also fighting the new bureaucracy of S.H.I.E.L.D. What ensues is pretty much standard fare. Nick recruits an elite team and invades the island. The battle scenes are gory, the language is vulgar, and the T&A is present. While Fury doesn’t offer anything really new or innovative, it is a fun story with a long-time favorite character of many that really shows that Nick Fury can still kick some ass.

The real gem of Fury is found by looking at the story as an extended metaphor for Marvel Comics itself. The underlying theme of the new corporate world versus the old school methods is the treasure that needs to be explored for. These "pissant little rules" that Nick complains about can be seen as the rules that comic publishers let themselves be governed by as set out by the Comics Code Authority. Marvel decided that it would no longer seek the Comics Code approval stamp on their comics because the system was out-of-date and expensive. The whole reason publishers sought this stamp of approval was so that newsstands would sell their books. Back in the 50s, parent and religious organizations would boycott newsstands that sold objectionable material to kids, namely comics that the parents did not approve of. In an effort to save itself, the comic industry self-imposed particular rules on what their comics could depict. This code created the notion that comics were only for kids and hampered creativity. But as long as the kids kept buying comics, the publishers were happy. As the younger audience departed comic reading, Marvel had to get rid of the code in order to keep their core adult audience satisfied.

The aging S.H.I.E.L.D. can be compared to aging Marvel Comics. For several years the company had been on a downward spiral. Readers complained the stories were getting stale, that prices were too high, and that the super powered super hero was the focus of too many titles. The problem was that Marvel Comics had indeed become too much of a bureaucracy. Gone were the old days when Stan Lee had the creative control of the company, guiding it to become the biggest and, some may say, the best. Then as the company became more corporate and the almighty dollar more important to stock holders, Marvel churned out anything and everything that they thought would make them a buck, regardless of overexposure of characters or quality of the product. How many Punisher and X-titles were there during the comic boom? Did we really need Punisher: Armory, a comic that depicted and described the weapons and equipment he used?

Fury depicts S.H.I.E.L.D. as an aging institution that is beset with over spending, mismanagement, and lack of leadership, much in the same way that Marvel Comics was. While S.H.I.E.L.D. only had to cut their budget, Marvel actually had to file for bankruptcy to fix their financial woes. Marvel, like S.H.I.E.L.D., had to streamline their operation. In old issues featuring S.H.I.E.L.D., huge battles with hundreds or thousands of combatants could ensue. In Fury, Nick hand selects a few specialists to accompany him on his mission. Marvel had to scale back the number of titles they produced and only publish those that were of quality. Most important is that S.H.I.E.L.D. needed solid leadership and Nick took over as the guy in charge instead of the bureaucratic red tape machine. Marvel also has taken on a more solid leadership with the addition of Bill Jemas, President and Joe Quesada, Editor-in-chief. These two guys have vastly improved the business and quality of Marvel Comics over the last couple of years. In an effort to draw more readers, Marvel, under this new leadership, now heavily markets graphic novels and trade paper backs (TPB). These two formats are a lot longer than the average 22-page comic and cost a lot less than buying individual issues. Only a couple of months after the last issue of Fury was released, Marvel published a TPB collecting the entire series in one volume. By offering complete stories at lower costs, Marvel hopes to attract a new and larger audience.

Fury ends with Nick realizing that although Rudi was a psychopath that he was right about wanting to go back to the old way of doing things, even if it meant starting a war. When too much bureaucracy gets entangled in the process things tend to suffer from it. Nick Fury and Marvel may have seemed like those old soldiers that were about to fade away, but with some hard work and innovative strategies they are both quite alive and doing well. They may be a little more rough, a little more vulgar, and a little more offensive, but they are also a little more relevant, a little more exciting, and a little more mature. I, for one, am glad that Marvel has started to cater to the adult crowd a little bit more. By giving old characters that adult edge, Marvel has ensured that other readers and I will stick around for a while longer.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/fury1/